Mental Illness and the Workplace

Author: Natalia Beiser


When I resigned my full time job in 2005 due to bipolar depression, I subsequently went on disability.  I spent countless years allowing my bipolar diagnosis to define how I should be treated in the workplace. Prior to going on disability, I had an employer that regularly bullied me after I requested reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  

After requesting the various accommodations, my boss walked by me and said aloud, “That one needs a job coach.” Many similar encounters transpired and this left my self-esteem completely shot.  Due to having underdeveloped personal boundaries and wanting to be a superhero bipolar social service caseworker,  I devoted too much of my existence assuring that those that I served had the best quality of life that I could help facilitate.    

After going on disability an extended period of time had transpired since I had been employed at a meaningful job.  It was unfortunate that when attained employment that caused me to feel self-worth again, many facets of my life became intertwined.

I was thrilled to obtain employment with people that I deemed were kind.  After approximately three months of working for the family owned business, I let the owner know that I had bipolar disorder.  He knew that I was on disability, and was inquisitive and made sly comments about wanting to know why I was receiving benefits.    

This lack of boundaries followed me to the new place of employment with a vengeance.  I gave my new employer everything that I had.  I have a food addiction, so when I became overly stressed, I would self-medicate.  I worked many more hours than I was paid for, and the business owner became used to this.  I was often not mentally or physically healthy during this time, but I felt that I had to give my absolute all because I did not feel that I was worthy of my job.  

My boss would periodically make comments about the “free money” that I was receiving from the government. I felt such shame for utilizing this back up system.  Once I was chronically ill with a fever provoking ear infection and my boss made a negative comment about how I was sick all of the time, how it never ends, and then he made a sarcastic comment about this being why businesses should employ the handicapped.  

For years, I believed that I deserved to be talked to like this, and I felt small because of my diagnosis.  I would express feelings and opinions, and there was a history of me being told that those thoughts did not matter.  If I was called on a Saturday night and I was out to dinner, and the business owner asked me to do something right then, I would balk, but would do it.  And then I would be mad at myself.  Outings were interrupted because someone needed help and I was told to accommodate.  I was driving on a Sunday afternoon to visit an elderly relative out of town and I was essentially told that I needed to contact every single customer by text (approximately 240) and provide them with a piece of information, as I was the only person in the small workforce that could efficiently perform this task.  But I did, because I was scared not to.  Their emergency always became my emergency.  

While working for this familyI was always in some state of fear.  I was afraid of displeasing them, and was frightened that they would not want to continue to work with me.  I never felt good enough for their empire.   
Fast forward a few years.  I found out that I had cancer.  While on medical leave, I was fired, but figured out later that this was a blessing in disguise, as I quickly obtained the first job that I interviewed for.  My clients are glad to see me each day.  After six months on my new job, I earn more money than before and have arguably fewer responsibilities, along with less stress.   I knew all along that my employer had no boundaries.  What I did not recognize was how bad my own boundaries were.  

If you are receiving Social Security benefits and well enough to work, consider finding employment that is a good fit that allows you to feel good about yourself.  However, please learn from my experience and do not allow yourself to be manipulated, talked down to, or have your boundaries stomped on.  You never know how important your presence is to someone else.  You just being you may be exactly what is needed in your local workforce. 

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